Saudi men began voting, Thursday, for municipal candidates running in the first stage of the kingdom's unprecedented nationwide vote. The Saudi government has begun a very cautious attempt to bring reform to the oil-rich country. Although voter turnout is reported to be very low, there is a new sense of optimism in the kingdom.
In trying to establish what the Saudi kingdom calls a mechanism for Saudi citizens to slowly begin a process of democratic reform, the first-ever municipal elections are being held in Saudi Arabia.
In the first part of a three-stage election, voting Thursday is only taking place in the capital, Riyadh. Women cannot vote. Only about 150,000 men registered to vote in a city that contains a population of over four million.
According to Sami Baroudi, the head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, the small number of registered voters indicates a lack of interest in the process.
"People are not taking these elections seriously," Mr. Baroudi says. "Probably, they think that the municipal council is going to not have that much influence. So, it reflects that these elections are not really taken that seriously. And, again, not the whole council is elected. Half of it is elected. The other half is appointed by the government. So, it is not really a democratic way of choosing a municipal council. But it is a start."
The vote in Riyadh will be followed by municipal elections in the eastern and southern provinces of the kingdom, next month. Residents in northern and western Saudi Arabia will vote in April.
Even if voter interest remains low, Arab affairs expert and former Egyptian ambassador Abdullah al-Ashaal says a seed of democracy is being planted in Saudi Arabia.
"I think having elections in Saudi Arabia now is very important, because Saudi Arabia has normally had a different system, by which elections were not counted as one of the tools," Mr. al-Ashaal says. "So, introducing these elections, even if few numbers of people have been registering, there is a new phenomenon in Saudi. And, I think this is going to increase and develop. I am not worried about the small numbers."
While the public may not be taking the elections seriously, the candidates are. More than 1,800 candidates are vying for about 200 seats from the Riyadh area. Some contenders are reported to have spent millions of dollars campaigning.
The Saudi government says, following the municipal elections, it expects to hold provincial elections within four years.
Although political reform is not happening fast enough for many Saudi citizens, even the harshest critics of the elections have said a slow process is better than none at all.